Digital badges in education

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  • Digital badges in education

    David Gibson & Nathaniel Ostashewski &Kim Flintoff & Sheryl Grant & Erin Knight

    # Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

    Abstract Digital badges provide new affordances for online educational activities andexperiences. When used with points and leaderboards, a badge can become agamification element allowing learners to compete with themselves or others, and toknow how close they are to accomplishing a goal and acquiring its accompanyingreputation. In this role, badges motivate continued engagement, which increases timeon task and supports skill acquisition through performance. Learning outcomes signi-fied by badges can also be displayed in an e-portfolio or on web sites and are highlytransportable to social media sites. In this role they summarize achievement and signalaccomplishment. With these characteristics, digital badges have the potential to becomean alternative credentialing system, providing visible recognition in digital symbols thatlink directly via metadata to validating evidence of educational achievements in publicdisplays. This paper will trace the brief history of digital badges, define what they are,give examples of their use, and discuss their educational affordances.

    Keywords Digital badges . Assessment of learning . Gamification . Certificationsystems

    1 Introduction

    A search of the term digital badges on Google Trends shows that the worldwideinterest in the term only dates from 2010 (Fig. 1), so it may be too early for acomprehensive literature review of digital badges in education. The Badges for Life-long Learning Competition and Mozillas Open Badges initiative, which has stimulated

    Educ Inf TechnolDOI 10.1007/s10639-013-9291-7

    D. Gibson (*) :N. Ostashewski : K. FlintoffCurtin Teaching and Learning, Curtin University, Perth, WA 6102, USAe-mail:

    S. GrantDuke University, Durham, NC, USA

    E. KnightMozilla Foundation, Mountain View, CA, USA

  • much of that global conversation, only officially launched on September 15, 2011, withthe participation of the U.S. Secretary of Education (Duncan 2011; Surman 2011). Yetinterest has quickly grown. While the production version of the Open Badges appli-cation-programming interface (API) appeared on March 14th, 2013, at publicationdate of this entry there are more than 700 unique registered issuers linked to over75,000 digital badges.

    A search of peer-reviewed educational journals reveals evidence of the lag in timefrom research and development to publication. For example, the terms badge anddigital badge only returns a handful of formal publications in education and gamestudies. However, the number of projects funded by foundations and the rapid increasein informal communications on the over 500 blog posts at, andseveral dozen other websites of funded projects, are evidence of the momentum andenergy in the global conversation.

    In this article we provide first-hand information about digital badges by goingdirectly to and engaging with people and sources involved in creating the emergingopen badge infrastructure (Mozilla 2013) ecosystem, and then consider the implicationsfor education. This article thus relies heavily on field notes and direct communicationsvia emails and blog postings from founders, creators and early adopters.

    2 Definition and uses of digital badges

    Adigital badge is a representation of an accomplishment, interest or affiliation that is visual,available online, and contains metadata including links that help explain the context,meaning, process and result of an activity. One kind of process, for example, might bethe peer and expert review of artifacts of work showing what someone knows and can do,and the accompanying validation and credentialing of that persons knowledge or capabil-ity. The practice of creating, awarding and displaying digital badges has emerged from theintersection of digital games practices, online reputation systems used in commerce (e.g.eBay, Wikipedia and Amazon) and media culture as well as the historical custom ofawarding recognition via physical status icons, such as ribbons, medals and trophies.

    Achieving or receiving a digital badge can occur in a variety of ways ranging, forexample, from the results of free-choices on web sites, participating in online engage-ments, reaching performance benchmarks, and responding to informal and formal

    Fig. 1 Worldwide Google searches using the term digital badges from January 2009 to January 2013.(Author created graphic using Google Trends)

    Educ Inf Technol

  • assessments. Displaying badges on a personal webpage, electronic portfolio or a socialwebsite is a way to establish and share a part of ones identity and reputationparticularlywhat one knows and is able to do.

    Digital badging increasingly appears in promotion and engagement strategies toencourage desired online behaviors. For example in 2005, Microsoft introduced one ofthe first examples of an achievement system with the Xbox 360 Gamerscore, which hadthe effect of integrating individual games into an ecosystem and led to new communitypractices based on individual roles and responses to the system of recognition (Jakobsson2011). As another example, badges at the social media site encourageusers to check-in frequently, to utilize the social network often and to accumulate credit,recognition and prestige. These uses of badges not only motivate desired behaviors andprovide status and recognition in an online community, but also foster brand loyalty andcustomer retention, features that have not been lost on education futurists and thoseinvolved in the transformation of teaching and learning (Davidson and Goldberg 2009).

    In education in particular, badges and badging systems are emerging to

    & Incentivize learners to engage in positive learning behaviors& Identify progress in learning and content trajectories& Signify and credential engagement, learning and achievement

    In order for badges to be recognized as meaningful indicators of learning, as would anysymbol of a valid educational assessment, they must be linked with evidence of activities,experiences and artifacts created during a learning engagement (Gibson 2006; Mayrathet al. 2012). The association with such evidence can be as simple as a hyperlink to adescription, or in more sophisticated applications, the image or multimedia file displayingthe badge is encoded with metadata; for example using the affordances of the .pngfunctionality (International Standards Organization 2004). To support meaningful use ofdigital badges in education, developers of digital badging systems embed metadataconcerning relationships such as:

    & Issuer& Standards achieved and certified& Activities undertaken, artifacts created, and situations experienced& Quality of the experiences, products and performances

    Badges showing these connections can serve to communicate and translate learningacross the peer, interest and learning contexts of ones life.

    Asmight be obvious, the strength and utility of an educational badging system is closelyrelated to the learning engagement and assessment strategies of the issuing organizationand relies on a combination of factors including the credibility of the organization and therecognition and acceptance of the badge by other users. This trust is conveyed if the badgeis a valid and reliable symbol of learning certified by an issuer and both the issuer and thebadge award process are accepted within an ecosystem of other people and institutions.

    3 Origins of badges

    According to the Oxford English Dictionary, badges were a heraldic symbol worn byknights, which were later worn as jewelry, or to denote the completion of a pilgrimage or

    Educ Inf Technol

  • as a mark of political allegiance (See "Badge" in the Oxford English Dictionary Online, In rites andrituals the badge has long been associated with displays of rank and achievement, andmore recently has been associated with advertising, branding and visual identification ofmembership (Halavais 2011).

    Digital badges seem to be a metaphorical and more flexible extension of recognitionpractices such as the merit badges used by the Boy Scouts association around the globe(Hintz 2009). The merit badges highlight the achievement of the scout in terms of aclearly defined skill or knowledge set demonstrated at an established standard or levelof practice, a model that suits the educational context especially well.

    With the advent of the Internet, some of the first digital badges may have beenwebsite traffic counters that displayed the popularity of a page, badges were alsodeveloped to link users to associated sites in rings of sites operating as communities(e.g. still displays the PBL Web ring badge). Electronic paymentservices are often noted with a badge testifying to their security, and badges linkingto social media help users share with friends and show others ones preferences, likesand status. For example, in Wikipedia Barnstars, badges are a type of award recogniz-ing the activities of Wikipedia editors. (McDonald et al. 2011).

    Using digital badges in education has also emerged in relation to a larger conver-sation about testing and credentialing. Eva Baker, for example, in her presidentialaddress to the American Educational Research Association, discussed both the end andthe ends of testing (E. L. Baker 2007) and suggested that alternative forms of recog-nition of learning were both needed and on the rise. Other scholars have examined therole of credentials, the robust transformation that has been occurring due to massiveopen online learning, and the impacts of these trends on research into the sociologicaldimensions of formal education (D. P. Baker 2011; Gibson 2012).

    4 Badge ecosystem infrastructure

    To date the most comprehensive development of a badging environment is arguablyfound in the Mozilla Open Badges Infrastructure which publishes an interoperablestandard (Mozilla 2013). Other systems are emerging with similar goals and approaches(e.g. Credly ( and Badgestack ( TheMozilla OBI is built upon open software strategies and is intended to provide astructured and standardized environment to utilize the characteristics of digital badgesto recognize both formal and informal learning. The OBI provides a platform forverification, portability, creation and collection of digital badges, with associatedmetadata needed for their acceptance as useful credentials.

    Metadata is a relatively simple but important concept needed to understand theeducational affordances of digital badges. The term refers to data about data and inthis current context, were referring to descriptive markers placed in a stream of data,which informs a machine about the contents. For example in the string /1,000 there is a subject-predicate-value triple (also called a class-attribute-value triple) which informs a computer to put /1,000 into a bank. Thecomputer knows this because the controlled vocabulary of the internationally comput-erized banking system has agreed to the definitions of the words bank, deposit and

    Educ Inf Technol

  • the number system for currency, as well as what to do with some value when it is calleda deposit (e.g. put it in, do not take it out).

    This seemingly straightforward process if implemented in an educational context hasthe potential to transform teaching and learning in a way similar to that of the otherindustries that have adopted machine-to-machine business processes. For example,areas that could be dramatically impacted include transfers of academic credit, respon-sive learning systems that can find resources based on a learners actions and interests,automated scoring of student work, and finding and organizing study teams, problem-solving groups, as well as courses, units and classes.

    Other more proprietary badging systems may accommodate varying degrees of inter-operability, but both the private and open source developers seem to be aware of the needfor portability of credentials and the expectations that users will want to accumulate anddisplay badges. Thus custom solutions are emerging as stand-alone products (e.g.Accredible ( and as products that leverage openapplication programming interfaces (APIs); for example, Purdue Passport (, Blackboard Open Badges Building Block (, and Wordpress Plugins ( Mozilla is also experimenting with an open source badge-issuing platform called Open Badger and a personal e-portfolio called the Backpack.

    Digital badges in education are thus rapidly evolving as objects of use in teachingand learning. Systems incorporating badges often add many features to create hybridtools that serve purposes such as a scoreboard of activity, a formal record of accom-plishment, and a portfolio of evidence of learning.

    5 Educational affordances of digital badges

    The affordances of digital badges for education can be categorized into four key areas:motivation, recognition and credentialing, evidence of achievement, and research onthe linkages among and impacts of the affordances. The first three directly concernteaching and learning and the fourth concerns educational research.

    5.1 Motivation

    Acquiring digital badges motivates some learners to continuously engage with onlinematerials and activities that have been designed to help them achieve intended learningoutcomes. The activity of acquiring badges can thus drive the acquisition of knowledge andskills (Abramovich et al. 2013). A series of badges, acting like signposts for potentialachievements, can also provide users with information about further learning opportunities,forming a kind of pathway model for achievement and making that pathway more trans-parent and accessible for the learner. Each badge with its metadata, for example, can point tothe next steps for progress and the requirements for success. This motivational affordanceimplies that as open educational badge ecosystems evolve, digital badges will begin toappear in applications as diverse as recruitment (e.g. and, online learning programs that help learners meet the requirements for collegeentrance, skill-building applications that provide pre-professional practice (e.g., serious games that promote health and wellness (e.g., informal

    Educ Inf Technol

  • out-of-school learning (e.g., self help and emergent study groupprograms (, test preparation applications (e.g., game-basedlearning management systems (, and human resource training programsin leadership and other fields (e.g.

    5.2 Status recognition

    A second affordance of digital badges is to provide recognition of stat...